WASHINGTON - Liu Jin wanted his due - $733 in back pay.
As a scooter driver in a blue uniform, Liu gigged for Ele.me, an online food delivery service owned by the Alibaba Group, a growing multibillion-dollar behemoth that dominates China's e-commerce.
On January 11, Liu showed up at Ele.me's distribution center in Taizhou, doused himself in gasoline and set himself on fire. Onlookers captured the scene on video, their footage displaying the Ele.me slogan "Instant Delivery, Beautiful Life" on a wall behind the man engulfed in flames.
A video of the incident went viral on Weibo, China's social media platform, as the 48-year-old worker was being treated for third-degree burns.
Liu's protest in China's eastern Jiangsu province came not long after a 43-year-old scooter driver referred to only as Han died while delivering meals in Beijing. Han also worked for Ele.me. The company's insurance paid $4,600 in compensation to his wife, parents and two children.
When his family spoke out, the company offered $92,500. In a statement, Ele.me said that it "had not done enough in terms of accident death insurance and needs to do more." A scooter delivery driver makes about $7.50 an hour as a gig worker, or from $615 to $1,230 a month if under contract, according to local media.
The incidents cast a spotlight on the working condition for China's gig economy workers.
"This shows the helplessness of an ordinary workers," said one commentator on Weibo.
"Now that the society is 'ruled by law,' the capitalists are not afraid of anything," said another.
According to a 2020 report from the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, the only trade union Beijing tolerates, 6.5 million workers have joined the union since 2018.
Food delivery company sales are surging worldwide during the pandemic as those affluent enough to afford the services during protective isolation pay for meals delivered by people risking their health for low wages and in some countries, tips. Globally, gig workers were one of the fast-growing segments of the global labor market before the pandemic. In 2018, there were 43 million gig workers worldwide, according to a MasterCard survey, which projected that in 2023 there would be 78 million gig workers.
Yet in China and elsewhere these workers often have no access to benefits such as retirement programs, compensation for work-place injuries, vacation time and health care that attach to a formal labor contract.
Wang Debang, a rights activist from China's southern province of Guangxi, told VOA Mandarin that China needs a systematic framework to protect the rights of gig economy workers.
"Without a universal system, there won't be proper protection and compensation to these workers," he said, adding that the press needs to act as a watchdog and track abuse of gig workers.
Li Qiang, director of the New York based rights group China Labor Watch, said that the gig economy workers have to pay a huge price to defend their rights through legal channels.
"Fighting through legal channels doesn't guarantee you can get your salary back, and it's extremely time consuming. So for most workers, they will choose to be quiet and quickly get another job," said Li.
He added that labor unions in China need to be more effective to ensure proper enforcement of labor laws. He also pointed out when enforcing the law, local government authorities favor businesses over workers because companies are considered useful for creating job opportunities and maintaining social stability.
If workers protest, "they might be arrested and imprisoned for crimes such as 'disrupting social order' or 'picking quarrels and provoking trouble,' " Li continued.
Although China recognized flexible and informal employment in 2001 in the tenth Five-Year Plan, Beijing has yet to implement real structural changes and protection for gig economy workers.
On January 20, the National People's Congress Standing Committee received a draft regulation for review. According to the draft, workers, including those with flexible employments, can apply for legal aid to help solve disputes over work-related accidents such as traffic accidents, food and drug safety accidents, medical accidents and personal damages.
Teng Biao, a Chinese human rights lawyer, said the new regulation, if passed, will offer some help to those at the bottom of the society. But in China, he cautioned such regulation will have limited effect because of the centralized, authoritarian system.
"In many cases, it is not just a lack of legal service or legal consultation, but also the corruption in the entire legal channel," he said. "The legal system in China is opaque and laws can be difficult to enforce, so the actual effect of legal aid will be limited."
Lin Yang contributed to this report which originated on VOA Mandarin.